Tote Challenge

K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

#ToteChallenge: Young people investigate the problems caused by plastic shopping bags, then propose solutions they can take to address the problems. They brainstorm uses for plastic bags. This lesson gives guidelines to design a reusable shopping tote out of an old T-shirt using engineering, problem-solving, creativity, and communication. They take action for the common good by using and sharing their project and by educating the community about problems and solutions to the plastic bag crisis. 

PrintOne session, plus time for a project

The learners will...

  • identify issues around plastic bag usage and disposal. 
  • describe the benefits of reducing, recycling, and reusing.
  • employ problem-solving and teamwork to design a reusable grocery bag that people want to use #ToteChallenge.
  • advocate for recycling and reusing bags.
  • old T-shirts (bring them from home, if possible)
  • materials to remake the T-shirts, such as needles and thread, ribbons, scissors, and string

  • copies of Family Letter handout to tell families about the project (see below)

Teacher Preparation 

Ask young people to bring in old T-shirts that nobody is wearing anymore. They may also bring in ribbon and sewing supplies, as needed. See handout

Home Connection 

Students bring T-shirts from home -- old T-shirts only!! They may explore other T-shirt tote designs with their families as a fun family project. 

Do not buy T-shirts for this project. find an organization to donate a previous year's T-shirt. There are cheap T-shirts at thrift stores, if needed. 

Adapt this letter for your school-to-home communication.


Read the following quotes and discuss how personal behavior choices may impact a big issue. 

“One of the few relics of our civilization guaranteed to be recognizable twenty thousand years from now is the potato chip bag.” ― Edward Humes, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash

“I'm not out there suggesting that we should ban every plastic product. But there are some whose environmental costs exceed their utility, and the [plastic] bag is one of them.” ― Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Follow-up: Discuss what they’d like to do next to continue impacting their community. Ask young people to reflect on their T-shirt tote projects and the impact they had when they shared the bags or the messaging.


"Truth about Plastics" Infographic, Reuse This Bag 

"22 Facts about Plastics," EcoWatch. 


  1. Adapt this one-session activity for any age or group and follow it with a simple and powerful service project. The reflection brings learning and service impact together. 

  2. Anticipatory Set: (10 minutes)

    Search Google Images for pictures of "plastic bag pollution." Show the pictures to illustrate the different issues caused by plastic bags in the environment. Show the 2009 video "The Bay vs The Bag" as a creative illustration of the plastic bag issue getting out of control.


    • At the end of the video, what does the woman do that shows she learned the impact of her actions?
    • The YouTube video "The Bay vs the Bag" was made when San Francisco was voting on banning plastic bags in grocery stores. They were successful. Some cities and states ban bags or charge for bags. Discuss the pros and cons of banning bags.
  3. Part One: (15 minutes) What are the problems associated with plastic shopping bags?

    • What are some of the ways that plastic bag use causes problems? (Pollution on land and in the water, harm to animals, hard to recycle, uses oil in production, some bag inks are toxic)
    • Optional: Spend time conducting research to get accurate information about plastics and the environment. Check accuracy by looking at sources of facts.
    • Discuss personal calls to action:
    1. Do you re-use plastic shopping bags at home? For what uses? 
    2. What are some ways you can reduce how many plastic bags you use. What are some alternatives to taking a new plastic bag?  (carry a reusable bag with you, don't use a bag)
    3. What can people do to manage plastic bags so they don't end up in the environment? 
  4. Variation for older youth: Research history timeline of recycling or Earth Day.

    Variation for younger children: Read and discuss Why Should I Recycle? by Jen Green, We Are Extremely Very Good Recyclers by Lauren Child and Bridget Hurst, or What If Everybody Did That? by Ellen Javernick.

  5. Part Two: (20 minutes) Educate our community about reducing use and pollution of plastic bags

    1. Brainstorm 35 ways to reuse and repurpose plastic bags (may include crafts and useful remakes). Note: one group made jumpropes out of plastic bags.
    2. Discuss ways to share these ideas with other people, including social media, posters, making videos, and advocating for banning plastic bags. 
    3. Ask the children/teens to commit in writing to at least one way to make a difference. 
  6. This project may be started together and completed at home or remotely, either with the group or with friends and family.

    Project Overview: Work with a team to design a reusable grocery bag out of an old T-shirt. This project uses engineering, art, communication, and benefit to the common good. #ToteChallenge

    Give the following parameters:

    1. Reuse an old T-shirt to make a reusable grocery tote (may use other materials to help with design). 
    2. It must be easy to carry with a comfortable handle when the bag is heavy.
    3. It should be strong enough to hold a bag of flour and well made so small items, like an apple or check-out aisle candy don't fall out (may be sewed, buttoned, glued, or tied).
    4. Use teamwork and problem solving.
    5. Make the bag as attractive as possible.
    6. Write a clever inspirational saying with fabric markers on the bag.
    7. Type a note about the bag's purpose and how it was made to include in the bag.
    8. Donate the bag to someone or to the grocery store. 
    9. Make a YouTube video or social media post about the process, product, and reflection. #ToteChallenge

  7. Reflection

    1. What are some things you tried and dismissed when you were making your T-shirt tote?
    2. What makes a T-shirt bag a good alternative to a plastic grocery tote?
    3. What are some disadvantages of using a T-shirt tote?
    4. How can you tell others about your design so they can make their own?
    5. What steps could you take to share homemade totes in your local community?